Along with the emergence and growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web has come the creation of a new occupation: the webmaster. This person is responsible for publishing a website, which may be a single page or hundreds of thousands of pages. It is difficult to be precise about what a webmaster does, because the web itself is changing, and this in turn changes the way in which people use it. Some people consider the term "webmaster" to be an unnecessarily sexist term. Alternate terms include "webster," "web designer," and "information architect."
A key role for the webmaster is to be responsible for organizing the information at a website. Other people may decide on the content and provide excellent resources for the potential users of the website, but if those users are not able to find the resources that would interest them, then the work is in vain. Organization involves understanding the site as a whole and deciding on the best ways in which to help users get to the appropriate pages. Thus, organization is not just about how to arrange information within a single page; it is also about deciding how all the pages of a website will fit together. This is clearly a complex task.
In many ways, a webmaster is like the editor of a newspaper. Other people provide most of the content, but the editor has to arrange the content so that readers can find their way around the newspaper. A consistent house style is important in helping people to use a website. That means not just the style of writing but also the names that are used to describe parts of the website and the mechanisms that are provided to help the user to navigate within the website. Graphic design can be important in conveying an appropriate impression about the nature of the website and the organization that it represents. However, an obsession with flashy graphics, particularly animation, can make the website much harder to use, more confusing, and slower to download. Therefore, a webmaster must balance competing design interests.
It is important to remember that a website is intended to be used by different kinds of people with different needs. For example, in the case of a commercial website, the users may be people who work in the organization, regular customers, first-time customers, experienced web surfers, novices, people who have a specific thing that they want to find out about or buy, or people who want to browse around. A good design will help all users find their way around the website. A poor design will confuse users, which probably means that they will give up and go to a competitor's website instead.
Website design involves a lot of interaction with other people. This includes people who are going to write pages or provide text for the web-site and people who have opinions about what the website is for, how it should look, and what information it should provide. Inevitably, that means that the design process can be political because everyone thinks the things that they do are so important and crucial to the success of the organization that their pages should be directly featured on the home page and that they should be given priority at the top of any list of links.
In order to help users to find information within a website, the webmaster needs to consider issues of usability, which involves examining the existing website for potential sources of confusion. User testing of a website can reveal many problems, particularly where the designers have accidentally assumed more knowledge about the website than a casual user would have. If people do not realize that something is a link, they will not click on it. Support for navigation is especially crucial; otherwise, as users click around in a web-site, they may get a feeling of being lost.
The webmaster needs to be aware of the different ways in which people will use the website. For example, a website may be easy to use on a powerful computer with a big monitor and good network connections, but if the intended users are using less-powerful machines and poorer Internet connections, then the website should be tested in that environment as well. It may help to create text-only versions for some pages to make them easier to download over slow modems. Users who have disabilities should also be considered. For example, users who are visually impaired will have difficulties with graphical icons. However, additions to the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) that creates the page can be made to describe in words what the graphic shows, so a text-to-speech browser can still be used. In addition to helping visually impaired viewers, this feature helps all users who simply prefer not to download graphics for reasons of speed. Wider benefits often result when designs are created that bear in mind users who have specific disabilities.
Another important task for a webmaster is the maintenance of a website. New pages will be created and need to be integrated into the website so that they can be easily found. Existing pages may become obsolete, and links to other pages may no longer work. A webmaster should be concerned with the continual improvement of the usability and usefulness of the website. Traditionally, many webmasters focused on the technical aspects of a website (i.e., creating scripts for ordering products, managing backups of the data, and handling the server on which the website was hosted). However, the role of a webmaster has become much broader than that. A webmaster may now have a much more senior position that is responsible for creating an overall strategy for the web-site and then overseeing the work of others who are responsible for the more specific tasks that are involved in fulfilling that strategy.
Webmasters come from a variety of backgrounds, including programming, graphic design, librarianship, and technical writing. Because the web itself is still evolving rapidly, it is difficult to say which particular skills, backgrounds, or training will become the most crucial for finding employment in this occupation in the future. Clearly, a webmaster must understand how the web is used and how web-pages are constructed. That requires some familiarity with HTML. New design toolkits are always being developed, as are new protocols and technologies for providing access to different kinds of multimedia. Hence, the ability to learn these new technologies very rapidly is more important than knowledge of a particular technique that may quickly become obsolete. The skills of organizing information, interacting with different individuals and groups, and writing in a clear style will, however, always remain important.
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